THERE is a clear honesty about Kelly Brown, so when the big back row says that he has not discussed with new coach Scott Johnson whether he will continue as Scotland captain in the forthcoming RBS Six Nations Championship one is inclined to believe him.
He has had chats with Johnson but, up until yesterday at least, they centred on what he had to do to push himself forward for inclusion in the team. So he remains unclear as to Johnson’s thinking in that regard.
“It’s not uppermost in my mind,” said Brown as he came back together yesterday with the Scotland squad he led, and some new faces, for the first time since the defeat to Tonga in November. “People forget that, actually, we’re all players and the fact that I was captain through the autumn Tests is not going to count for a lot if I am not picked to start in the back row now.
“You only have to look at the potential back rows we could put out to see the amount of competition we have there, so I don’t think anyone will be taking their place for granted.
“And when I said after the Tonga game in Aberdeen that there was a responsibility on the squad to go back to their clubs, and find ways to make themselves better players, I was talking to myself as much as to them. So that’s what I’ve been doing. If Scott asks me to be captain then I would love it but, at the same time, if he doesn’t that won’t affect my focus at all.”
That should not be taken to suggest that Brown has little interest in the captaincy or has had enough of it after a run of three straight defeats. He took the role seriously, to the extent that as well as driving some home truths into the squad after the lacklustre showing at Pittodrie, he continued to show support to team-mates with regular contact with players at Edinburgh and Glasgow and abroad, despite having his own demons to deal with. “The aftermath of that game in Aberdeen was horrible really,” he reflected. “There’s no doubt that after the whole series of autumn Tests it was hard to get your head straight about where we were, and I felt a lot of responsibility, not just for the way the match against Tonga turned out, but also for Andy [Robinson] leaving.
“But ever since I was a kid I’ve dreamt about being a Scotland player and captain and it is an honour that I would never walk away from. My family and friends were huge supports after the autumn, and just going home helped. International rugby is incredibly intense, so going home and just being a husband and dad again with all the pressure off was a huge help.
“And the guys at Saracens have been incredibly supportive. I needed it because I was low when I went back to the club, upset really at how the games had gone, and how we cost Andy his job ultimately.
“But then you’ve got to move on, learn from it and resolve to become better and stronger as a result of it. We have that responsibility as professional players and I know that the guys up here have been working very hard to improve as players too.”
Brown is a strong character, on and off the field, but 2012 was as challenging as they come. At this point a year ago he was holding a secret that only those close to him shared, that he would be named Scotland captain and be Scotland’s face for the annual RBS Six Nations launch at the stately Hurlingham Club. And then, in the final Heineken Cup pool match in Treviso, he collapsed in agony with a dislocated fibula and ankle damage.
As he was helped from the field, his immense delight at the thought of leading his country through a Six Nations slipped away.
So, understandably, he exhaled a huge sigh of relief in the Saracens dressing room on Sunday afternoon when he emerged unscathed from 80 minutes against Edinburgh in the equivalent pool match this year.
Brown was on form in the 40-7 win and, by all accounts, the popular Scot has been a key performer, at No 8 and blindside flanker, in Saracens’ run of six straight wins over Munster, Bath, Northampton, Sale, Racing Metro and now the Scots.
“Yes, it was a huge relief to come through that game,” he said, “and to win with five tries and a bonus point, in not great weather, and get a home quarter-final was great.
“But now the attention has switched to Scotland. We have a lot of work ahead. I have been reasonably happy with my form, though I’m never entirely happy with how I’m playing, and the confidence is back after a few wins.”
In terms of the health of the wider Scotland squad, and how he helps in the process of rebuilding confidence for that Twickenham challenge, and recovering from last year’s Six Nations whitewash, Brown is quick to distinguish between lack of confidence and a feeling among players that they are not up to winning at Test level.
“That is very different. You can’t perform at this level if you don’t have belief in yourself as a rugby player. I knew sitting in that dressing room at Pittodrie that we weren’t rubbish players. I knew that we could improve. At no stage did I think we weren’t up to it.
“That’s probably why the frustration was so great. We know we’re capable of better than that. So, there is actually plenty of confidence looking forward. We know we can match these players in the Six Nations and beat them if we get it right.
“The main thing for me is making sure that we nail a high level of performance consistently. In the past we’ve done well for a period of the game, but then switched off and conceded a soft try. So it’s making sure that we are much more consistent with our skills through the whole 80 minutes. Then we could all have something to shout about.”